Experiments in gravity: How Leonardo da Vinci was ahead of his time 

The polymath was centuries ahead of his time.
Loukia Papadopoulos
Sculpture of Leonado da Vinci
Leonado da Vinci.


Engineers from Caltech have studied Leonardo da Vinci's notebooks and discovered that the polymath’s understanding of gravity was way ahead of his time.

In fact, he had even conducted experiments to demonstrate that gravity is a form of acceleration and modeled the gravitational constant with around 97 percent accuracy, according to a report by Phys.org.

Da Vinci could have been more accurate in his findings, but he was limited by the tools at his disposal.

The Codex Arundel

Da Vinci's advanced findings were first discovered in early 2017 by Mory Gharib, the Hans W. Liepmann Professor of Aeronautics and Medical Engineering, in the Codex Arundel, a collection of papers written by da Vinci that cover a variety of topics both science-related and personal. 

Gharib noticed a series of sketches showing triangles generated by sand-like particles pouring out from a jar.

"What caught my eye was when he wrote 'Equatione di Moti' on the hypotenuse of one of his sketched triangles—the one that was an isosceles right triangle," said Gharib, lead author of the Leonardo paper. "I became interested to see what Leonardo meant by that phrase."

Gharib sought the help of colleagues Chris Roh, at the time a postdoctoral researcher at Caltech and now an assistant professor at Cornell University, as well as Flavio Noca of the University of Applied Sciences and Arts of Western Switzerland in Geneva. 

In the papers, da Vinci described in detail an experiment with a water pitcher that sought to mathematically explain gravity’s acceleration. This is where his theories came short, argued the researchers. 

An error in thinking

Gharib and his team used computer modeling to run the genius' water vase experiment. This process surfaced in da Vinci's error in thinking.

"What we saw is that Leonardo wrestled with this, but he modeled it as the falling object's distance was proportional to 2 to the t power [with t representing time] instead proportional to t squared," Roh said. "It's wrong, but we later found out that he used this sort of wrong equation in the correct way." In his notes, da Vinci illustrated an object falling for up to four intervals of time—a period through which graphs of both types of equations line up closely.

"We don't know if da Vinci did further experiments or probed this question more deeply," Gharib told Phys.org. "But the fact that he was grappling with this problem in this way—in the early 1500s—demonstrates just how far ahead his thinking was."

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